Monday, November 26, 2007

Floating Boats on the Chao Phraya

On Saturday I joined millions of Thais in Bangkok who went down at dusk to the Chao Phraya River to float their boats. It was Loy Krathong, one of Thailand's biggest holidays, and the custom is to float (loy) a small boat (krathong), made of palm leaves and flowers, topped by incense and candles, and in the process let go of all one's emotional baggage to start life anew. The festivities in Bangkok included entertainment on both sides of the river, a parade of illuminated boats, and fireworks. I have never seen such large crowds, and were it not for the Thai custom avoiding physical contact whenever possible (politeness abounds on the crowded Skytrain), I might have panicked.

Loy Krathong is celebrated on the full moon of the 12th month in the lunar calendar. It is similar to Divali, the Hindu festival of thanksgiving to the divine Ganges which includes the floating of lanterns. King Rama IV wrote in 1863 that the festival was adopted by Thais to give honor to the Buddha. According to legend, Nang Nopamas, a consort of King Ramkhamhaeng of the Sukhothai kingdom (14th century), made the first krathong as an offering to the goddess of the waters, Phra Mae Nam. She set it afloat on one of the canals of the palace so that it would drift past her lover the king. Thus originated the saying that if two lovers launch a krathong which stays afloat until out of sight, their love will last forever. Beauty contests are traditionally held on the holiday to crown a "Nopamas Queen."

Believing that it was an all day event, I first visited Lumpini Park where I thought Thais might launch their krathongs into one of the lakes. But the park was empty. I did see women making krathongs for sale later. At Siam Paragon, the upscale mall, a lady in traditional garb was setting krathongs out on a table (photo above), and someone had already put a couple into a small pool. Realizing that darkness and the moon were necessary ingredients, my friend and I went to the movies (Ang Lee's new film, "Lust, Caution") and emerged at sunset. We took a taxi to Banglamphu where a large crowd was gathering on the grounds of Prasumain Fortress in Santichaiprakarn Park. The sidewalks were packed with vendors selling krathongs, all kinds of food, and balloons. After dinner at Ricky's Coffeeshop, we dove into the heart of the madness.

All docks and boardwalks along the river were packed with people. Helpers holding long poles with baskets at the end would set krathongs into the river for a small fee. It is considered more auspicious to float your boat well out into the river so many celebrants were boarding special ferries for that purpose. Banglamphu is a backpacker's ghetto and so there were lots of farang participating in the celebration. According to the Bangkok Nation, "This year, krathongs made from natural materials, especially banana leaves and bread, were popular, in contrast to previous years when krathongs made of foam were used." Tables full of farangs and Thais on the lawn around the fort were diligently making their own krathongs from a chaos of ingredients. On two stages at each end of the park, bands were playing Thai rock and roll and dancers were dancing to traditional melodies. Wide-eyed children were holding sparklers and eating cotton candy. And a stream of young Thais in various costumes were posing for the photographers.

While Santichaiprakarn Park was one of the most popular locations in Bangkok for Loy Krathong, the other was across the river in the park at the foot of Rama VIII bridge. There we thought we would be able to put our krathongs into the water without assistance. And so we wound our way through small sois and alleys to the underside of the bridge where another million people appeared to have gathered. A slowly moving stream of people climbed up the stairs to the top of the bridge where we walked across to the other side. Everywhere people were taking photographs of people taking photos. From the bridge we could see the brightly lit boats parading up and down the river. Not far to the south was the rooftop across from the Shangri-La Hotel where I had spent Loy Krathong two years before with Jerry and Lamyai, enjoying a private party thrown by a publisher and watching the fireworks competition between the big hotels. This time I only heard big bangs and saw numerous amateur fireworks displays (up in Chiang Mai I read today that a 12-year-old boy blew off his hand).

In Rama VIII Park there were even more people than on the other side. A large queue of booths snaked alongside the foot of the bridge, offering a variety of culinary treats (for Thais, eating is inseparable from celebrating). On a large stage, more performers were singing and dancing. And on the river bank, thousands were launching their krathongs into the water, a myriad of dancing lights with waving trails of incense. I saw buckets of small turtles and wriggling eels that some put in their krathongs for good luck. I also saw cages of sparrows and small bunnies; I know that liberating birds courts good fortune, but I never did figure out what rabbits had to do with any of it. My friend gave me a look of horror when I suggested putting one on our krathong. Another oddity was the number of people wearing illuminated devil's horns (a popular item on Halloween here).

We shopped for krathongs and my friend picked out two that were suitably ostentatious, and we bought a lighter to light the candles and incense. She also added something from small packets that I believe was food for the spirits (there is an animist element to everything in Thailand). It was slow going through the crowds to the steps leading down to the water. There we found dozens of young men and women in the water waiting to assist you in launching your ceremonial boat, for a small fee. They were drenched and smiling, and we watched our krathongs slowly move out into the gentle current of the Chao Phraya.

Getting home was more difficult that making our way to the river. Taxis were changing a 100-baht premium just for the privilege of providing escape from the mass of people. So we slowly and carefully pushed our way back across the Rama VIII bridge to Banglamphu where a taxi finally found us up and returned us to Sukhumvit for only 75 baht. I went to sleep with visions of boats in my head, secure in the knowledge that I had let my cares and upsets go for another year.

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